REVIEW – April 2009

HIV – a social problem?


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Any illness needs to be understood in the context of social values and is as much a social/political as a medical/scientific problem, and even more so if associated with illicit and deviant behaviour. As a social phenomenon, HIV is definitely a social problem. From the constructionist perspective, social problems are “the activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions”. While some phenomena are defined as problems, there are also claim-making activities involved – some measures are to be taken in response. In Estonia, HIV was not defined as a social problem for a long time, since it was associated with the “others” – with decadent West in Soviet times and later with deviant groups (drug-users). Even though the situation has improved since on the regulatory level, numerous problems still exist on different levels. The percentage of HIV-positive persons in Estonia is incredibly high, but the subject has still not been acknowledged by the general population, as it is mainly considered to concern deviant groups. HIV- positive persons are often stigmatised, since they are associated with marginal groups – and vice-versa, deviant groups (drug users) are associated with HIV. The latter are double-stigmatised and blamed by public opinion. Stigma and discrimination can be understood as social processes which have their origins in broader structures of social, cultural and economic inequality. In the Estonian context they arise from the prevailing individualistic worldview that tends to see individuals responsible for their lives regardless of their social environment and living conditions.